Steve Bannon Indicted for Alleged Fraud and Money Laundering with Trump Border Wall Scheme

Steve Bannon, the chief executive officer of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in New York. Bannon, who also served as chief White House strategist and senior counselor to the president, is accused, with three others, of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He was arrested by agents with the U.S. Postal Service and was expected to appear in court Thursday.

Bannon is the sixth person who served in the inner circle of President Trump’s 2016 campaign to be criminally charged by the Trump administration’s Justice Department.

Prosecutors say Bannon, Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato, and Timothy Shea defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors with We Build the Wall, a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $25 million amid promises to erect a barrier on the southern border. The campaign initially announced a $1 billion goal. According to We Build the Wall’s website, a number of high-profile figures in Trump’s orbit have sat on the group’s board, including anti-immigration activist Kris Kobach, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, baseball player turned right-wing blowhard Curt Schilling, former Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke, and anti-immigration zealot Tom Tancredo.

We Build the Wall was originally conceived as an end-run around Congress; Kolfage, an Air Force veteran and triple amputee, blamed “political games from both parties” with holding up funding for the “big, beautiful wall” Trump made the centerpiece of his presidential run. We Build the Wall pledged to turn over every cent it raised to the federal government, but pivoted in 2019, instead promising to build portions of the wall using private funds, while continuing to assure donors that 100 percent of their money “will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose.”

The group completed approximately one mile of 18-foot fence on a private piece of property it purchased in Sunland Park, New Mexico, in 2019. Bannon said at the time the location was picked specifically because it was “where the cartels and asylum seekers are coming in.” A year later, on a trip to the border, Trump criticized another stretch of fence under construction in Mission, Texas, that was already showing signs of erosion. Trump told reporters the effort, funded largely by his own supporters, was “only done to make me look bad.”

The Justice Department’s indictment — which lays out the allegations against Bannon and his three associates — says Bannon pocketed more than $1 million of We Build the Wall’s donations through a nonprofit group he controlled, and used that money to “secretly pay” Kolfage, the face of We Build the Wall, and to cover “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in personal expenses.

Kolfage, who started the crowdfunding campaign, repeated assured supporters he would “not take a penny in salary or compensation.” Instead, the indictment alleges, Kolfage used the money raised to pay for home renovations, a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, plastic surgery, taxes, and credit card debt.

Bannon, who publicly described We Build the Wall as a “volunteer organization,” and the two other members of the alleged scheme used the money funneled from We Build the Wall to bankroll an array of unrelated personal expenses, including “travel, hotels, consumer goods, and personal credit card debts,” the indictment states.

Kolfage was open with his associates about concealing their self-enrichment scheme from the hundreds of thousands of people who donated to We Build the Wall. The indictment quotes a text message that Kolfage sent to Badolato: “as far as [the public] know[s] no one is getting paid” and “[s]alaries will never be disclosed.”

The indictment says Bannon, Kolfage, and the two others concealed their alleged self-enrichment scheme by routing their payments through a nonprofit group and a “shell company.” The Justice Department also alleges that Bannon and his associates used “fake invoices and sham ‘vendor’ agreements” to make sure that the scheme to pay Kolfage, the head of We Build the Wall, remained “confidential” and on a “need to know” basis, according to a text message sent by Kolfage and cited in the indictment.

In October 2019, the indictment adds, Bannon, Kolfage, Badolato, and Shea allegedly learned from a “financial institution” that they might be under federal investigation. According to the indictment, they took “additional steps to conceal the fraudulent scheme” at that time. They began using encrypted messaging applications, and We Build the Wall’s website “was changed to remove any mention of the promise that Kolfage was not being compensated and to add a statement that he would be paid a salary starting in January 2020.”

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